What is hindering the achievement of the most able year 11 students in Maths and English?

Amy Green teaches in a large, mixed, non-selective secondary school in a borough with a grammar school system in southeast London. She carried out qualitative research in 2012-13 with a group of ‘able’ year 11 students to capture their own thoughts on what may hinder their achievement. ‘Able students often feature as an underperforming group’ she writes, ‘but research tends to focus on the views of adults’. Her findings suggest that in her context, classroom factors, not family or peer-group factors, had the biggest impact on achievement. The findings are used to make recommendations for establishing a school environment where high achievement is expected, planned for and celebrated.


Able pupils often feature as an underperforming group in schools but despite the fact that achievement is hugely affected by social and emotional factors, much of the literature focuses on curriculum development rather than the views of young people themselves. My research focuses on a small group of twelve year 11 students who are considered ‘able’ in Maths and English because they left primary school with level 5s in both subjects. However, my school is located in a borough with a number of grammar schools and many able pupils like the ones in my research who do not get in to grammar school start secondary school with the perception that they have failed. A lot of work is done to meet floor targets and ensure that students achieve their C grade in Maths and English at GCSE, but once students are safely on a C, they receive less time and attention so the most able are not achieving their full potential.

For my small-scale research, I used qualitative data in order to capture the views of the year 11 students themselves. In their report on the most able pupils, Ofsted (2013) found that many schools did not ask students how well they were meeting their needs or what the school needed to do to improve their learning and I wanted to rectify this. My initial interviews took place in the Autumn term with groups of 3 students at a time. I then carried out lesson observations in the Spring term with follow-up interviews in the Summer term to explore some of the findings from my observations.

Students made it clear that they didn’t enjoy simply copying or going over things, or lessons that were too easy, but they enjoyed group work, doing something practical or lessons where the teacher made the subject interesting. My research also confirmed that able students need to be challenged and want to feel that they are learning something new rather than completing more of the same. Able underachievers need strong convincing to push themselves intellectually at the expense of their social reputation if they have become used to getting by on the minimum effort in lessons. It is clear from my research that able students like to be praised and rewarded for their work but the rewards have to be things that they want and like. With older students, tangible rewards do not always motivate them but my research suggests that able underachievers would benefit from an effort mark alongside their grade to increase their intrinsic motivation to work hard.

The most significant finding from my research was that factors relating to the learning environment had the greatest impact on underachievement as opposed to family factors or peer-group factors. I expected the home environment and peer pressure to have a strong influence on able underachievers but instead they talked about the teacher, the seating plan and the content of lessons during my interviews.

From this, I was able to infer that students will not achieve their potential unless they find lessons interesting and well-planned and they are learning something new. Able students need to be challenged with exciting tasks if they complete their work, not provided with more of the same.  Finally, schools need to create an ethos of achievement if they are to convince underachievers to strive for intellectual fulfilment over social fulfilment.

The findings of my small-scale research enabled me to make recommendations for my school on creating an environment where achievement is expected, planned for and celebrated. Among other things, school leaders need to agree on a definition of able students within the context of their school. They should draw up an action plan to establish roles and responsibilities and outline how able students will be monitored and tracked, but also make it explicit that supporting able students is the responsibility of all staff, not just specific individuals. The success of the most able should be conspicuously celebrated and role models who are achieving their potential academically and also succeeding socially should be promoted. Schools could establish a ‘Code of Achievement’ alongside their ‘Code of Conduct.’ Teachers should set extension work that motivates and excites students rather than simply asking for more of the same. Teachers could provide enrichment corners or boxes, puzzles, thinking challenges, challenge cards etc. They should celebrate success, display outstanding examples of student work and reward effort alongside achievement.

The fact that classroom factors are more significant than family and peer-group factors in the achievement of able students would suggest that it is really down to teachers to differentiate the curriculum and provide extension tasks that challenge able students as well as setting homework that is imaginative, challenging and differentiated. Teachers cannot blame students, their parents or the government – they must think about the effect they themselves can have. Ultimately, if we challenge the most able, all students will benefit.


Amy’s full report can be read here: RPBE report Amy Green FINAL


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